Christmas was coming, but Dad’s heart attack came first, on December 21st, in 1983. It was a terrifying wake-up call.
He fell out of bed maybe at 5:30 or 6am, all tangled up in his sheets. We were on Christmas break, just a few days before the 25th. I think most of my shopping was already done, and I’d even gotten the tree up too.
It was that build-up feeling, that low-level anticipation that accumulates around you in the air, in the clouds of people’s laughs dissipating as they talk about it. It builds up under car tires on the street, and in the folds of coat sleeves bringing bags home from the mall. Christmas excitement and probably too, Christmas stress.
So something broke inside my Dad, and he fell out of bed early that day. Instead of being woken by his voice saying “come on, time to get up”, I heard him call my name, loud and shaking. He sounded desperate, laying on the floor wrapped in a sheet, trying to get out, saying call an ambulance. My sister heard and we yelled at each other to call 911. One of us did. It might have been me, but I can’t recall.
Two large paramedics carried Dad down the steps in his t-shirt and briefs, and one said “Oof. Big boy.” He must have been at least 240 pounds and over 6 feet tall. The Love men were all so much bigger than me. In my shock at seeing him helpless, I still remained proud of his size.
Whether agreed or discussed, I don’t know, but my sister stayed at the house, and I went in the ambulance with Dad. His eye were wide, and he was soaked in sweat, and probably frozen in the frigid morning air. It couldn’t have been 2 degrees out – probably less.
In emergency at Burnaby General, I stayed with him for an hour or more, until he looked at me with the scaredest face I’d ever seen on him. It was his true self, which I perhaps I’d never seen before. His face said “I’m scared to hell”, and his voice said “I love you son”. I tried not to cry and to not let my voice shake, but he saw and knew I felt the same as him. We held hands the way brothers do – that underhanded grip that looks like the beginning of an arm wrestle. We clenched hands tight and I told him I loved him too. He said “I’ll be okay son. You go home and take care of your sister”, so that’s what I did, because I always did what Dad wanted. Right then I didn’t know what else to do, and I needed him to tell me.
I phoned Kim at home, and through her crying and my shaky words, we discussed what Dad had told me, and I said i’m coming home.
When I walked out the doors from Emerg, I felt a wave of fainting, and jammed my back up against the building as my legs gave out. I slid down into a crouch as everything went grainy, snowy blue, and some bell rang hard in my ears. I gasped breaths and waited until my head cleared and the ringing stopped. It was too much. I had to get home.
I don’t remember a Christmas that year. I remember drinking with my friends, and a lot of awkward fucking silence. That first night, my sister and I each spent the evening at different friends houses, talking and being consoled. I went to my friend Jamie’s and drank with his family. His mum cried for my sister and me, calling us babies. Her slightly drunk but sincere motherliness has always stuck with me. Kim and I had each found somewhere to be around friends.
I began listening to Pink Floyd, The Wall on my Walkman every night. I’d lay in bed too wound up to sleep, and would live through the scenes from The Wall, with all those sad Father and Mother images and the character of poor Pink, the lost boy, losing his identity and losing his mind. I was afraid of the future, and beginning to hate the world. Other times I just felt lifeless and depressed.
During the day, I was the dutiful son, making daily or bi-daily visits to the hospital or to the grocery store. I kept shit running at home the best a responsible teen could. During the night, I felt alone, bleak, and lost. I was untethered, and a big part of me was depressed and stressed. I wished for everything to just be over. Life sucked more than it ever had before.
Dad gradually got better over the weeks, then months. Then, he got worse (four strokes) and did eventual, continuous rehab, until he was able to move and kind of control his left arm a little, and speak more clearly. It was a long, slow process of not knowing what the next day would bring. A counselor at the hospital told me I was handling events that adults twice my age could not, and this made me feel proud. But i was depressed and emotionally lost.
I had Dad’s debit card and he told me his pin, so I kept the house stocked with food, and wrote cheques for him to sign to pay the bills. He always trusted me. Still, we were kids, and he never knew that we partied our asses off in the house, or that I sat in his recliner drinking beer and playing The Doors really loud on his stereo. The cat was away, and the mice were 15 and 17. The cops came once and warned us. After that, we settled down a bit. My poor gentle neighbours heard a lot of shit.
Dad had always smoked about a pack a day, and he drank every night. He never really did any exercise, never had friends over, and never did anything but work. I also believe he harboured a lot of guilt for the abuse he gave my mother, and her emotional collapse into depression, and the other forms of abuse he visited on us. By the time of his heart attack in ’83, my Mum had been a patient in Riverview and a ward of the province for a couple of years already. Dad had basically stopped going in with us to visit her by that point, claiming back pain. He would just sit in the car, wait for us, and smoke. I resented him for it, and thought he was an awful coward for not going in with us. I felt like I had to compensate for him. I did not understand what he might have been struggling with emotionally. This stress was probably a major factor in his health collapse. Looking back on him and his pride and ego,I’ll bet Dad felt like his family was a failure – maybe his failure. And in many ways, we were.
When Dad did finally come home again from the hospital, he was walking with a cane, holding his head up, but he was broken and had a hard time noticing things on his left side, like well-meaning neighbours who awkwardly tried to welcome him back.
Within a month or two, he went on a serious drinking binge and caused himself a bad stroke, and went back to hospital. He just couldn’t stop drinking. He rehabbed again, and finally quit smoking and drinking, but also fell down in the shower in hospital and fractured his hip (plus, had another stroke). He never walked again, confined to a wheelchair, and he never came home again after that.